A sodden afternoon in Sydenham. A trickle of sober pensioners converges on Jews Walk, overhung with wet branches. They turn into a deep, unkempt front garden, dip their umbrellas diffidently at the gate, divide into huddles, converse in undertones and wait. There is the air of an impending religious service. A hallowing, almost an expiation, is about to take place: the unveiling of a blue plaque to Eleanor Marx, ablest and bravest of Marx’s daughters, on the suburban villa where she had lived for just over two years when, quite without warning, she took her own life.
The patronage of English Heritage, which currently administers the London blue plaques scheme, does not run to the ceremonies. These are privately arranged and take many forms and moods. Bernardo O’Higgins, the liberator of Chile, got lashings of Latin American braid and a naval brass band, bemusing the residents of Richmond. Vera Brittain in Holborn elicited a family reunion of Brittains, Catlins and Williamses. Eleanor Marx’s event, arranged by the Sydenham Society on 9 September, felt like a last hurrah for the elderly socialists gathered to salute a fallen heroine.
‘The Den’, as Eleanor called her last home, should have been a refuge. Yvonne Kapp’s magnificent biography, alas out of print, tells the story. Exhausted by labour movement agitations and socialist factionalism, and keeping her head above water with translation work (she was the first English translator of Madame Bovary and An Enemy of the People), the 40-year-old ‘Tussy’ Marx gratefully accepted a handsome legacy from Engels in 1895. She used it to buy the house in Jews Walk (the name pleased her), away from the commotion of the city. Here she spent more and more time editing her father’s Nachlass, assisted by the equally bold Edith Lanchester (mother of Elsa), who had escaped the clutches of her bourgeois family to live openly with a railway clerk.
Retreat to Sydenham did not lessen Eleanor’s commitment. Though often ill, she travelled endlessly to address or interpret at meetings, and kept up a prodigious correspondence. The problem was Edward Aveling, her common-law husband, as clever and fervent a socialist as Eleanor, but a cold, compulsive philanderer, gravely sick himself and dependent on her for care and cash. Nine months before she died, he contracted a secret marriage. The usual theory is that Eleanor killed herself when she discovered it: she had certainly been wretched for months on his account, yet pathetically loyal. Most of her friends felt that Aveling was morally responsible for her death; some believe he contrived it.
The facts are these. On 31 March 1898 Eleanor sent her maid to the chemist for chloroform and prussic acid, saying it was for a dog. Aveling had medical qualifications and his card was enclosed, so the chemist complied. Not long after handing over the packet, the maid found her mistress dying, and by the time the doctor arrived she was dead. Aveling had gone up to London that morning, but it isn’t clear whether he left the house before or after the poison was sent for. If he colluded, it did him no good; he died four months later.
In the dank front garden, the commemoration of this cruelly curtailed life took on almost an aesthetic air. Perhaps revolutionary socialism can only be stomached now in England if commuted into art – and indeed blue plaques are art-objects of a kind. The present-day tenants of The Den leaned out of the quaint Tudor-style windows during the speeches, while neighbours from a higher flanking garden looked down as if from a Veronese balcony. Through some mishap all four speakers were men. The only one with the spunk to sport a red tie and whip up the faithful turned out to be Peter Cormack, formerly of the William Morris Gallery. Cormack reminded us not just of Eleanor’s friendship with Morris but of the continuing corruption of capitalism. After him, Robert Griffiths of the CPB (the ‘G’ got lost some years back) apologised sheepishly for the lack of sisters, busy at the TUC in Brighton.
But Griffiths, being Welsh, had a trick up his sleeve in the shape of the Strawberry Thieves, a socialist choir from South London. If their cheery T-shirts reminded us that the blood-red of Eleanor Marx’s struggle has faded to a fruity pink, no matter. Following their lead, stumbling through the text from rain-spattered sheets, we made ‘The Internationale’ ring up and down Jews Walk, as it can hardly have done for a century, then washed it down with ‘The Red Flag’. The sharp-suited Lewisham MP, Jim Dowd, pulled the cord, and the core of the pensioners trooped off to the final destination of all comradely occasions, the local pub. The following week a rumble from Highgate Cemetery was heard around the world. Marx and his daughter are not history quite yet.